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Historical Thesaurus Week – Christian Kay reflects

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Professor Christian Kay joined the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary project in 1969, working on it right up to publication this month. In this original post, she reflects on the successes and challenges of forty years’ work on this amazing feat of scholarship.

Click here to read more OUPblog posts on the HTOED.

Publication of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED) took place on 22nd October 2009. It was celebrated by a party at Glasgow University, where the project was developed, attended by over 100 people. I was proud to be one of them.


The project was started in 1965 by Professor M. L. Samuels, who, at the age of 89, was present at the party and gave a short talk. Also on the platform was another founder member, Professor Jane Roberts, who supplemented our Oxford English Dictionary-based data with material from Old English (c700 to 1150 AD) not included in the OED. The quartet of editors was completed by Irené Wotherspoon and myself, both of whom joined the project in 1969, as Research Assistants funded by the Leverhulme Trust. By that time, Irené was completing the first postgraduate thesis based on Historical Thesaurus materials, A Notional Classification of Two Parts of English Lexis.

09 - 247 Prof Christian Kay 006The appointment of Irené and myself was a significant departure for the project in that it was an acknowledgment that it would never be completed without full-time assistance – originally it had been conceived as a research activity for teaching staff and graduate students. We settled down with our volumes of the OED and our packets of paper slips to compile data for inclusion in the thesaurus. My first letter was L, which contains some very challenging words, such as ‘lay’ and ‘lie’, whose meanings I had to distribute around the semantic categories of the work.

The 1970’s brought other challenges. Michael Samuels and I started working on a system of classification suited to large amounts of historical data, and we began recruiting doctoral students to work on specific sections of data, such as Religion or Goodness. We also faced a situation which was to become horribly familiar: running out of money. My job became part-time, and I supplemented my income by freelance work for publishers and writing textbooks. The situation was saved for me in 1979, when I became a full-time lecturer in the English Language Department. Irené had already departed for the south of England, where she raised three children and continued to work freelance for HTOED.

The downside of having a more secure job (‘at last’, said my family) was having less time for project work. In addition to my new role as a teacher, I found myself increasingly involved with thesaurus administration. We took our first tentative steps into computing at the urging of OUP, who wanted the project delivered electronically, and I spent much time in mutually uncomprehending discussions with computing experts. I also developed skills in fund-raising and people management: in the 1980’s we began to take on trainee lexicographers and typists to do preliminary classification and data entry. When Professor Samuels retired in 1989, I took over the administration completely.

The ever-present question, asked repeatedly by funders, University authorities, and OUP, was “When will the project HTOED-hi-resbe finished?” This was a difficult question to answer, and involved such arcane skills as calculating the number of slips to a filing drawer, multiplying by the number of drawers, and working out the percentage completed in relation to the total in the OED. We came close to finishing in the early 1980’s, when we completed slip-making for the first edition of the OED, but by that time OUP had started producing supplements, and then a second edition, so we ploughed on, combining slip-making with classification. For the remaining years of the project, funding became easier, and we were able to employ both full-time assistants and graduate students on a part-time basis. Overall, I calculate that about 230 people played an active part in the project during its 44-year history.

Over the past few weeks, various people (mainly journalists) have asked me “Why did it take so long?” The answer is partly that we never had enough money, but also that work of this kind requires a good deal of careful human input. If you are faced with, say, 10,000 slips containing words which have something to do with Food or Music, arriving at an acceptable classification is not the work of a few hours.

Classification and data entry proceeded through the 1990’s and early 2000’s, with glimmers of light occasionally visible at the end of the tunnel. One highlight of this period was the publication in 1995 of A Thesaurus of Old English by Jane Roberts and myself, which proved that we could at least finish something. Another was my promotion to a professorship in 1996. However, the best moment of all came on 29th September 2008, when the disk containing the final text went off to OUP, followed in August 2009, after a tough period of proofreading, by the appearance in Glasgow of the first copy of HTOED.

Recent Comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by HTucker, Rebecca and Kirsty McHugh, Kristena. Kristena said: RT @history_geek: RT@kirstymc 40 years' work on the Historical Thesaurus (@oupblog) – http://is.gd/4GXBQ – Amazing. [...]

  2. uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by history_geek: RT@kirstymc 40 years’ work on the Historical Thesaurus (@oupblog) – http://is.gd/4GXBQ – Amazing….

  3. [...] Continuing on from our Historical Thesaurus week, I’m delighted to be able to bring you another wonderful original post from Professor Christian Kay, who headed up the project. Today she tells us about one of her favourite sections of the HTOED: kinship. You can read her previous OUPblog post here. [...]

  4. Sylvia

    Congratulations to Professor Kay and everyone who worked on the HTOED! I can’t wait to get and review my own copy. It will sit proudly next to my Shorter OED. :)

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